William Tecumseh Sherman famously argued that war is an unpleasant, bloody slog, and to pretend otherwise is fudge and folly. The optimal policy is not to fight a war in the first place, especially a civil war. If war it is to be, however, the best option is to ruthlessly rain harm on the other side as much as possible as fast as possible. If the gloves come off, get in there and mercilessly punch your opponent’s mug to a pulp, even if that means taking a few nasty licks yourself. “War is cruelty,” he said. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
It’s a brutal philosophy, but as any Southerner stuck between Savannah and Atlanta in late 1864 can attest, an effective one. It works in politics, too. Intramural fights within political parties can be just as vicious and nasty as the most ferocious throw-downs between them. The most malevolent of these internal shootouts can devolve into Cain and Abel sorts of situations, ideological death-matches where the goal is not to lead your partisan brother to the light, but to stick a shiv in his back and put him and his movement down for good. If the ideological or policy split within a party is big enough–historical examples in the United States include slavery, trust busting and civil rights–you get the political equivalent of a full-blown civil war. As Sherman said, it is best not to get into that position in the first place. If there’s no avoiding it, though, hit first, hit hard, and don’t stop hitting until you see white flags from the other side.
Of course, all this metaphorical pugilism is presumed to serve a larger strategic goal. In other words, you commit savagery on behalf of a principle, a creed or a value so sacred it justifies do-or-die, or at least a good social media bitch slapping of people on your own side. But what if the whole point of carrying out that civil war is the sheer sport of carrying out spiteful and rancorous assaults? How do you bring that to a rapid and reasonably amicable end?
If you have a good answer to that question, the Republican Party will be (or at least, should be) glad to hear from you. The GOP is currently engaging in a particularly nasty and vicious civil war. It’s gone way past the usual jockeying for power and position of competing factions of a political party. That typically involves a lot of back-stabbing and double-crossing, but it’s mostly done behind closed doors and almost never gets to the point where the combatants are in the streets howling for each other’s heads. But that’s exactly where the GOP seems to be finding itself.
There seems to be no overarching ideological or policy goal motivating this fight. The media mostly portrays it as a conflict between the establishment wing of the Republican Party and the populist wing of the Republican Party. And, I guess, it is. The people involved certainly seem to think so. Stephen Bannon, relishing the part of Republican Party Dr. Evil, has publicaly declared “a season of war against the GOP establishment.” The Bannon banner-men lose no opportunity to call the establishment fuddy-duddies “RINOs”, “cucks”, “booger heads,” and “snot lickers.” Okay, I made the last couple up, but some of it does smack of a 10-year-old’s you’re-not-the-boss-of-me foot stamping.
The establishment isn’t standing for it. Bob Corker and Susan Collins have wagged serious fingers (heavy on the middle digit) at Donald Trump. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lost his temper and called his boss–the president of the United States–a moron. Dubya and John McCain are doing their best stern dad impressions, giving lectures along the lines of, “You dern kids need to stop foolin’ with all this newfangled Trumpism and listening to those hippity-hop nationalists.” Meanwhile the Republican leaders of the two houses of Congress can barely get along with each other, can barely stand the president, and seem helpless to prevent their party–the party that won everything in 2016–going into the next election bare-assed.
The end result is that Republicans keep doing inadvisable things with their own feet–shooting them, masticating them, and planting them in each other’s butts. At the center of this meltdown is President Trump, who is, hands down, the party’s champion mug-puncher. The list of sore-jawed include Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, pretty much his entire cabinet (notably Tillerson and Jeff Sessions), and most GOP members of the United States Senate (McCain, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lyndsey Graham, Bob Corker, Ben Sasse and on and on and on). Of course Trump has not limited his slugging to Republicans. Or even Democrats. He gets licks in on, of all people, hurricane victims and Gold Star families.
The bottom line is there is a lot of extremely nasty infighting going on within the political party that controls all the major power centers of the national government. The collateral damage could get ugly. Some of the major combatants (one in particular) do not seem to be fighting for principle. They just seem to like meanness for its own sake. The goal doesn’t seem to be to end the fight quickly but to prolong it as much as possible. Then start a new one.
Given that, I can’t hazard a guess at which side of the GOP civil war is going to win. I am pretty sure, though, which of those sides is going to lose: Both of them. War, as Sherman so eloquently put it, is hell.